Making progress on your writing

To outline or not to outline…

Let me guess. Most of you are going ‘Uh, obviously you want to outline before you write.’

And a wayward few of you are probably from this school of thought:

Your writing can exist in a mutable state for a very long time. The best writing happens when the writer is discovering what happens as he or she is creating.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 1.44.59 PMIn the NY book editor’s article linked above, the argument is that planning ahead kills your writing before you even start. Note that the author doesn’t completely disregard the idea of outlining; he simply encourages you to wait until after your first draft.

Now that’s a fresh approach!

So here’s the part where we would normally go into why it all depends on you, the writer, and what you’re writing. Every journey is unique and thus, your process is too!

And since you writers, as a general group, are pretty smart, we’re going to assume you get that and move on.

Now here at TheRightMargin, our workspace makes it easy for you to go in prepared or opt for the ‘create as you go’ plan. But either way, here are some reasons for why outlining in general (before or after you start drafting) is a very good idea:

  1. You know how it all ends.

Yes, this is like the God cheat code on Ultimate Doom.

Use the expand feature in the right margin to work side by side with notes, outlines and your draft.

Omnipotence and invincibility aside, having a rough mental model of your start, middle and end for most long-form work helps you keep moving forward. You retain focus and understand how to shape your bite-sized segments of writing, assuming you’re not writing a 300 page novel all in one take. And depending on your own personal or professional deadlines and ultimate writing goals, it’s a lot easier to track your overall progress and visualize the so-called ‘light at the end of the tunnel’.

2) You reduce the chances of writing yourself into a corner.

Ever been in a situation where introducing the idea of laser shooting, X-ray vision powers contradicts the decision you made to have all your characters be blind mice? Curses.

Whether you’re creating magical worlds or writing about the complex yet parallel relationships between six different couples in a comedic romance novel, writing yourself into a corner is really not that hard. What’s hard is writing yourself out of it. In fact, after talking to a bunch of writers, this came up as a frequent reason for abandoning projects or getting the case of the ‘blocks,’ big time.

Outlines, the more thought out the better, can reduce the chances of this happening. Even if you do write yourself into a corner, an outline is an awesome place to go back to in order to get yourself unblocked.

3) Outlines are not set in stone.

Unless you’re going real old school with that chisel.

Yes, this is really a caveat rather than a direct reason to actually outline, but it still counts! You can change, edit, evolve or scrap any part of your plan, draft or notes any time you want or need to during your journey. Do not fear the outline. Remember you are a literary god when it comes to what you create and if you wish to change your plan or approach, you can, anytime. In the immortal words of that pirate guy, “The [Outline] is more of what you call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

In the end, outlines serve as tools for you, the writer. Depending on what works for you and what your specific goals are, outlining can be leveraged in a variety of ways.

Our advice? When in doubt, outline. And hey, you can always work on your trashcan dunk if it doesn’t work out for you.


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1 Comment

  1. It might also be useful to think of the outline as a place to store all the tasty ideas, fitting them in where they seem appropriate. This serves the planning component, but also reminds you of all the stuff you’re looking forward to exploring.

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